“The American automobile industry is back,” the Gipper pronounced after not only seeing but actually driving the first working prototype of Saturn all the way back in 1984. It’s a little illustration of the failure of GM’s next great hope that wasn’t.
There is little doubt that of all of the American auto industry’s numerous blunders, Saturn may stand as the most singularly tragic. I mean tragic in the classic, high school literature sense. In the early ‘80s, General Motors convinced itself that its existing brands not only were not matching their Japanese rivals, its existing brands could not and would not ever match their Japanese rivals. It started a new brand with a new factory, new dealerships, an all-new car and a different name. As was then-CEO Roger Smith’s M.O., this new Saturn would leapfrog its competitors by spending big on all new everything.
Though Saturn started up in ‘82 through ‘84, it only went into production and on sale in 1990. It was fabulously well-received. Also, it was doomed.
The problem was that GM spent so much on Saturn’s new development, it never really could scrounge up the money to continue to innovate. The first Saturns were cool, but they aged out pretty quick and all of their successors were incrementally more standard, normal and depressing. It wasn’t long before Saturn was selling re-badged Chevrolets that nobody cared about.
The whole operation closed down in the Recession, likely costing GM something around $12 billion, as automotive historian and expert Paul Niedermeyer noted in his 2009 eulogy.
But oh how bright that future looked back in 1984. Saturn’s initial investment was a staggering $5 billion, unreal money back then, and representative of how big the bet on the brand was. GM even invited Ronald Reagan around to see the very, very, very first running Saturn car, as the January 1991 issue of Car Styling magazine notes:
By the end of 1984, a running prototype sedan was built. The first press photo that accompanied the announcement of the formation of Saturn corporation was of the clay model of this car. Incumbent President of the United States Ronald Reagan drove this sole prototype car on his visit to GM Design.
Here’s that picture, showing GM CEO Roger Smith and GM president F. James McDonald standing with their new baby:
I’m not exactly sure why GM invited Reagan over for a drive, but it does imply that there was a great bit of pride in the venture.
Reagan spoke about the car, too, in an address to the General Motors Assembly Plant in Orion Township, Michigan in July ‘84:
I have seen so much that I told Roger just a little while ago, I can’t wait for the next summit conference, I’ve got so much to tell some of our friends from around the world.
But, also, I had the privilege of driving a prototype car just a little while ago. And Roger was brave enough to get in the other seat. And I reminded him that for 3 1/2 years I’ve been sitting in the back seat. [Laughter] But fortunately, I have to tell you, it literally drove itself.
Literally, it did not. It was a conventional vehicle. The production cars only ever matched the standards for their class even after years and billions of dollars in development, as Automobile Quarterly noted in its 1993 review. (Automobile Quarterly featured its Saturn review in the same issue that covered a comprehensive history of the previous all-new car brand from a major American carmaker, the Edsel.)
Reagan tried to spin his Saturn experience into a statement on American ingenuity. He probably didn’t realize it was more of an example of American hubris or foolhardiness than anything else, but it was a different time and Reagan was not that kind of guy. Still, Reagan’s statements on Saturn sound comically tragic now that we know how Saturn would die:
President Dwight Eisenhower, who dedicated the GM High Tech Center, which I just visited, once said, “The future will belong, not to the faint-hearted, but to those who believe in it and prepare for it.” Well, you’re preparing for our future, for a better future. So, let our competitors take note today: The American automobile industry is back—back with pride, back with teamwork, and back with performance that can and will make us number one.
Earlier today, I was at the Tech Center taking a look at your Saturn project. The energy and creativity out there confirmed my belief that mankind is on the edge of a new era of opportunity and progress. Putting technology to work for us, which is what your Saturn project is all about, will ensure that when the future gets here, Americans will be leading the way. Space-age technology is being put to use to make certain America remains on the cutting edge of progress, new products, and new jobs. The confidence and positive outlook experienced here today—or evidenced here today is the kind of optimism and pride in our way of life cropping up in cities and towns in every part of our country.
Saturn ended up hiring the same guy who came up with Reagan’s campaign slogan ‘It’s Morning In America,’ Hal Riney, to do Saturn’s first campaign. It ran on much the same theme, decreeing ‘You’ve Only Just Begun.’ Sigh.